A lock of Edmund Kean's hair
A small print, pen and brown ink on 2 pieces of folded paper, possibly a letter, and a lock of hair in a frame.
"Edmund Kean" (in print); "Edmund Kean" (signature on each piece of paper); "Jany 12th 1833 / 15th Decr 1830" (dates on each paper); "I certify that this lock of hair was taken off by me two hours after Mr Edmund Kean's death at Richmond Surrey on the 12th day of May 1833 / John Lee 24 Bow St Oct 25 / 49" (insc. pen and brown ink below hair)
No record of how it came to the Garrick Club, but was sold by Farebrother, Lye & Palmer sale, 24th February 1881 "Collection of pictures, water-colour drawings, manuscript plays, old play bills, relics, and a variety of items connected with the drama, from the time of David Garrick to a comparatively recent period, the property of the Trustees of the Royal Dramatic College, and others" Lot 93: small portrait of Edmund Kean with Autograph and lock of his hair
Exhibition for the opening performance of the National Theatre at the Old Vic on 22nd October 1963
During an examination undertaken in March 2003, it was discovered that the pieces of paper are in fact receipts that have been crossed by Kean's own signature, and dated 15th December 1830, and 12th January 1833. Also found inside the frame was the cover for the Farebrother, Lye & Palmer sale and the lot entry [see provenance above], and a piece of tape inscribed "Opening of National Theatre at the Old [Vic (cropped)] / 22 October.
Edmund Kean had collapsed on the stage at Covent Garden during the second act of “Othello” on Monday 25th March 1833. He had been playing the moor to his son Charles’s Iago and Ellen Tree’s Desdemona. He was carried to the nearby Wrekin Tavern and was put to bed. The following Saturday he returned to his home in Richmond, but his condition steadily worsened, and he died on Wednesday 15th May. His death is described in F W Hawkins “The Life of Edmund Kean” London 1869 (pp391-392):
“For several hours before his death Kean was quite insensible; but even in his unconscious his thoughts were with his acting. ‘Farewell, Flo- Floranthe,’ he murmured at one time, giving a passage from the character of Octavian with affecting sweetness and pathos; ‘Give me another horse!’ he cried at another, half rising in his bed with delirious excitement; ‘Howard,’ he whispered tenderly at another. Shortly before twelve o’clock on the morning of the 14th of May his principal medical attendant, Mr Douchez, who had postponed several consultations in town in order that he might give his undivided attention to the dying actor, found that his unconscious had become greater; and towards the evening a large accumulation of mucus taking place in the bronchiæ (better known as the rattles) gave evident signs of speedy dissolution. He continued in this state during nearly the whole of the night, occasionally murmuring religious interjections, or some scrap from the characters he had represented so well. At five o’clock on the following morning he appeared to recognise Mr Douchez and Mr Lee, his attached and faithfull secretary, for he feebly extended his hand, grasped that of the former, and threw a look of unspeakable affection and gratefulness upon them. Later in the morning an attempt was made to pass something through his lips, but in vain; he essayed to speak, but the power of articulation had gone for ever; and at twenty minutes past nine on the morning of 15th May, 1833, still holding the hand of Mr Douchez, he fixed his eyes on him and Mr Lee steadily for one moment, heaved a deep sigh, and tranquilly expired.”
The artist Robert Cruickshank immortalised the moment of Kean’s death in the presence of John Lee and Dr Douchez in his lithograph produced shortly after. [see Harvard Theatrical Print Catalogue Vol II p361 No.266]
John Lee, who had previously worked for Kean in the United States, and from 1827 had been looking after his estate in England, had become Kean’s secretary in 1829. The post had originally been offered to the actor Tom Cunningham with the terms of “£50 a year and as much bub and grub as you can stow in you,” but he had declined. Shortly after his death a scribbled “last will” was found in which he left his “dramatic wardrobe with all my other clothing …to my worthy friend John Lee”.
If the inscription on the mount is to be believed, then John Lee must have removed the lock of hair early on the morning of the 15th. Unfortunately nothing is known about how it came to be in the possession of the Royal Dramatic College, which had been founded 25 years after Kean’s death in 1858. Likewise nothing is known about its whereabouts after the sale in 1881 until it appears in the exhibition for the opening performance of the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1963.
Note that the inscription mistakenly dates the date of Kean's death to 12th May.